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John Connor [Celluloid 04.05.23] post apocalyptic apocalyptic scifi horror action cult

One of the bleakest movies I’ve ever seen is The Divide, a post-apocalyptic film from 2012.

The Divide is an English language film directed by Xavier Gens, an important figure in the New French Extremety movement, which was a loosely connected group of films and filmmakers who pushed not only the boundaries of violent cinema but the buttons of some cultural critics.

It was an era defined by figures and movies like Alexandre Aja’s High Tension, Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs and Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day, but which extended beyond the borders of France and into Europe, inspiring later films like A Serbian Film and even Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist.

And, honestly, after living through that period of early 2000’s french horror, cinema in today’s streaming era sometimes seems corporatized, sanitised and downright safe in comparison.

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While The Divide is not directly associated with that movement, I think it slots in quite well as a late addition as it bears all the bleak hallmarks and preoccupations of that brand of cinema and, honestly, even pushes them further.

The set-up of the Divide is simple: Following a nuclear attack, eight survivors take shelter in the basement of their apartment building, where fear and dwindling supplies eat away at their spirits, make them paranoid of each other, and turn them into the worst versions of themselves.

It’s a claustrophobic Lifeboat story… that slowly devolves into a degenerate post-apocalyptic "Lord of the Flies" where very quickly you realise these people are not going to work together, but are going to form toxic alliances, each individual willing to do whatever they need to survive minute to minute.

At first, the story sucks you in with its bombastic opening, its high concept and big questions: What happened? Will the characters survive? And is so, whill they be rescued.

But it doesn’t take long to realise this is not the movie that Gens has in mind. He’s far less interested in a survival story than exploring the depths of human depravity, and - by the end - the film descends into pure savagery… an exploration of id and ego and the limits of human suffering. The Shelter is merely a canvas for him to paint his bleak worldview in thick bold strokes.

Terminator’s Michael Biehn leads the cast in many ways. He plays the superintendent of the apartment complex and he emerges as a brute force that, rather than holding everyone together, becomes the new community’s violent tyrant.

But as good as Bein is (and it may be his best ever performance), I would say the most terrifying transformation comes from Milo Ventimeglia who gives an incredibly brave, haunting and terrifying performance as Josh and who becomes like the black hole of the movie… pure pessimism… his descent a nihilistic vacuum sucking everything and everyone up into it. He uses everything and everyone in ways that will shock you… but, it’s worth noting, only after he makes a discovery that leads him to believe all hope is lost.

There’s no question that other apocalyptic films have handled similar subject matter with an unflinching eye.

The famous 1980s Television productions "Threads" and "The Day After" both showed a commitment to presenting a bleak vision of life after a nuclear holocaust. The Road was also oppressively bleak at times, but I would argue at least that story ends with a note of optimism.

The Divide on the other hand, climaxes with a descent into utter madness, the only escape from which is to enter an ever darker world devoid of all life. For Gens there is no escape. We’re stuck with each other, our true nature is to oppress others for power and resources, and the only way out is… death.

Yeah, it’s that bleak.

You’ll notice I didn’t refer to this movie as shocking. While The Divide is that too, shock is very different from bleakness.

What makes a movie bleak is not its shock value, but rather the lingering feeling of despair that it fills you with in the moment… and that lingers with you forever after.

Personally, I’d love to hear if you’ve ever experienced this kind of oppressive feeling of bleakness from a film before and what films those were.

The Divide is certainly not alone in that camp. Hard to be a God comes to mind. Come and See

What do you think of these kinds of experiences and how important are they to cinema as an art form?

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Recommended Release: The Divide

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Digger (1 month ago) Reply

The German film "Stalingrad" comes close to being the bleakest film I've ever seen.


Wumpus (1 month ago) Reply

So which movie *is* the bleakest you've ever seen?


Digger (1 month ago) Reply

Probably "Threads"

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